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Writing About Writing in an Open-Enrollment College

posted: 5.9.12 by Elizabeth Wardle and Douglas Downs

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Rebecca Block, an Associate Professor and Writing Center Director at Daytona State College; she completed her graduate work in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Louisville. She is currently teaching introductory writing using a writing-about-writing approach in an open enrollment institution where this approach has not previously been employed.

Before I began teaching with Writing About Writing, I was fairly apprehensive about how it would go over in an open enrollment environment. What I’ve discovered, though, is that the students here—especially the ones returning to school after years being away—seem to flourish under the challenge of investigating themselves and tackling difficult reading and writing assignments. Their excitement is so rewarding that I find myself looking forward to the class and to reading their homework and major projects to hear what they have to say. 

“I’ve written a bunch of scripts for my various YouTube videos,” Tom (not his real name) tells me as I look up from my computer. “I’m up to about 40 of them now.” I smile and congratulate him, remembering how this same student, just a semester ago, declared early on that he was “no writer” and attending my introductory composition class only because it was required. Tom, like many students at the institution where I teach, had a bad history with education, and was returning to school after years away from it to obtain an associate’s degree with the hope of improving his employment prospects. Given his initial demeanor, the transformation in his attitude about himself as a student and writer over the course of the semester was amazing to watch.

About two thirds of the way through the term, Tom wrote the following:

I must say my life has been changed dramatically by ENC 1101. Though I have read voraciously at many times in the past and have an appreciation for the people who are able to write, in the past I viewed authors as people with some type of “special” skills. Imagine my surprise when suddenly I am being taught there are many specific methods for prose production. My vocabulary has been forcibly expanded, my ability to write (and my desire to) has been enhanced by several orders of magnitude, and my knowledge of MLA and paragraph structure may be on the way to being satisfactory. Knowledge of the multitude of revision strategies have allowed me to pick and choose what works for me, and though I don’t need or want to use some of them, others have been very helpful.…

In a chronology of myself as a writer, I have progressed from knowing none of the “official” terminology, doubting that I could ever write because I possessed none of the tools, and afraid to write because I had no way to gauge the suitability and quality of what I had written. Now I have produced some writings, and feel capable of many more. Indeed, I feel euphoric when I put my thoughts to paper and force my 55-year-old brain to tell my fingers what to say! I find myself thinking of subjects, and stories about them suddenly come to mind.

Tom, like all of my students last semester, was initially quite resistant to reading scholarly work as part of an introductory writing class. In the first few weeks of last semester, I focused on reading, to near disastrous effects. It wasn’t until we got to the readings on the writing process, and activities that asked students to investigate it within themselves, that things started to turn around.

So this semester, facing a class where half of my students were my age or older and had been out of school for years, I decided to begin by focusing on who they were as writers and what their experiences with writing had been. Early participation and homework submissions increased, and classroom discussion was so active that when I lost my voice for a week early in the semester, I was able to turn the discussion over to a few of the students to lead while I observed. Just last week, one of my students came into my office to talk with me about how she uses the things she’s learned to talk with her kids about how to approach school, and how her work in our class has caused her to feel smarter and more confident in her job. She had been writing all her boss’s communications for over a decade, she said, and yet had always felt inferior to him—until reflecting about her writing history in this course.

Also during this semester, a few of my colleagues and I started a composition reading group. We meet at least once a month to discuss readings and approaches to teaching writing, and as a result of hearing my stories a couple of them have decided to try out WAW as well. Like me, they are excited about the idea of approaching composition as an opportunity for students to discover who they are as writers. This is especially true because our students most often conceive of writers as people with “special skills,” as Tom did. Our hope is that by helping students recognize they are already writers, they can then study their writing as an extension of the interests that brought them back to school in the first place, instead of viewing writing as a punitive exercise or a pursuit of an unattainable status.

Categories: Writing about Writing
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One Response to “Writing About Writing in an Open-Enrollment College”

  1. Elizabeth Wardle Says:

    Becca, I am so excited to hear how things are progressing for you. Thanks for sharing this with all of us. Hearing about Tom and the other students like him is a reminder to me of why I started teaching this way in the first place. And what I’ve learned over and over since is that this approach is not LESS appropriate for underprepared students, but MORE appropriate for them. They already know that what they’ve learned about writing so far doesn’t go with their own experiences, and they are excited to find research that helps them understand what they’ve been experiencing. Thanks again for posting.